Tuesday, March 07, 2006

In regards to the Seattle Times' editorial, and RTID:

This morning, I read the editorial in the Times regarding transportation funding. For the most part - I agree. Lawmakers should allow an RTID vote this year. Voters need to see the monorail tax disappear as a show of good faith before asking for it for another agency.

This year will bring us I-917, and further claims of government waste from Tim Eyman and his vocal minority. To counter this, I believe that the RTID bill should be bulletproof - fund extremely high priority projects and those WSDOT partially funded with the 2005 Partnership. Be careful to pay attention to the Potato Hill projects - things easily attacked by detractors through misinformation. Potato Hill was a great example last year of how good existing information from WSDOT, a solid response from legislators and bloggers and a response from the Times to their own editorial page made a surprisingly ill-informed attack fizzle.

When defending against I-912 last year, the biggest issue I ran into was a failure of WSDOT to keep their project web pages up to date until it was nearly election time. WSDOT had a page with links to various lists of projects, and very late in the game added project lists by county - missing links to most of the project pages. Many of the smaller projects still do not have web pages (like this one for Point Defiance Bypass) describing their importance and funding sources. If the RTID bill is to pass this year, WSDOT will have to be very clear on their site which projects are to be funded, and they will have to provide a self-contained list, with all proper links to project pages, accessible from a large, friendly button on the main page (as they've done before).

Here's where I'm really concerned: I think that if the monorail tax has not already been retired, any Sound Transit plan on the ballot will fail. It was extremely ill-advised to even discuss not allowing the tax to sunset. Taxpayers need closure! Look at this letter in yesterday's News Tribune - the author seems to be confusing Sounder commuter rail with the light rail project. Monorail and light rail are one and the same to many - our agencies are too complex to be distinct; I know people in Snohomish and East King who believed that they were paying for the monorail mess. Dropping that tax must occur to restore faith before we can ask for more money, and it must stay dead for long enough that people understand what they are paying for.

This brings me to my conclusion: Barring polling suggesting a solid win when offered with RTID, Sound Transit should wait to go on the ballot until 2007. The monorail tax should be retired as soon as the agency repays its debts, and the RTID should be limited to already partially funded projects and safety issues - no new ideas unless they enjoy popular support. As the monorail tax expires and Central Link construction takes shape, Sound Transit could offer demonstrations of their project as trains are delivered and enjoy increased popular support.

Yes, it's a year delay. I suspect that the alternative will be a lot worse.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Can a delay for Sound Transit mean better agency collaboration?

This morning I noticed something I had previously skipped over - WSDOT has a quarterly report up from December of 2005 for the Point Defiance Bypass project. Some of the comments made in this report are fairly harsh:
The lack of coordinated investments will cause Sound Transit to design and build only for its needs. When WSDOT funding becomes available, major components of the Sound Transit work will need to be redone to provide for both Sounder commuter service and Amtrak Cascades intercity service.
The new project, which I've discussed on my other blog, would move Amtrak Cascades service to new track, cutting six minutes off of the Seattle-Portland trip, and allow for further upgrades to reduce that time by at least another five minutes. It starts at Freighthouse Square in Tacoma, currently the terminus for Sounder service, and continues up the Tacoma Rail Lakeview line to Nisqually. A few weeks ago, we learned in the Seattle Times that the F59PHI locomotives in service for Sounder (and presumably those in service for Amtrak Cascades) can't climb the 3.1% grade to that line from a dead stop in wet weather.

This is a problem. The first proposed solution is one that's been discussed in the past: To build a bridge over Pacific Avenue to fully grade-separate the line. This would solve an existing issue - trains crossing South Tacoma Way and Pacific Avenue would pose a significant safety risk very regularly during busy commute times - and an overpass would allow the grade to be only 2.8%, which the locomotives should be able to start on even in bad conditions.

This solution would also reduce the likelihood of the neighborhood and commuters becoming opposed to the system - I can see 18 crossings for Sounder and the proposed 26 eventual crossings for Cascades (from their 20 year plan) being less than pleasant for traffic. A diagonal crossing such as the one originally proposed would be quite dangerous in heavy traffic - last November, a METRA train in Chicago destroyed and damaged cars who failed to heed warning signs and lights. Despite clear markings, gates, signs and lights, drivers still stop on tracks.

But, here's the problem. This track is in two parts - Sound Transit is to build a single track halfway along the alignment, to Lakewood. WSDOT is to build a track from 66th St in South Tacoma all the way to Nisqually, but plans to build a second track along the entire alignment for Phase 2. Sound Transit originally planned to have their section done by the end of 2007, and WSDOT didn't get their first large chunk of funding until 2009. This was a major issue - it meant that Sound Transit would have to build their project completely without engineering work or preliminary construction work for WSDOT's extension, and WSDOT would have to significantly change work ST had done, wasting money.

But! The State Legislature has just pushed up WSDOT's funding for the project so that they will receive nearly all of it in 2007, rather than most of it in 2009 and 2011. If Sound Transit chooses grade separation and can wait until this money becomes available, the cost savings of a shared project could free up funds to help pay for the overpass alternative. If Sound Transit and WSDOT money is pooled, the embankments leading up to the overpass can also simply be built wider for a later second bridge.

We need this project. It benefits both intercity and commuter rail, and not only expands commuter rail service to Lakewood and South Tacoma, but opens a path to Dupont. It allows for the addition of expanded Amtrak Cascades service - I was on a 250-seat train with 260 people on it last weekend, both the bistro and dining cars had people sitting in them. More service is necessary for the growth of our urban areas and to keep traffic congestion from increasing on I-5.

I propose that Sound Transit work with WSDOT to estimate what the cost savings would be to build both projects concurrently. With that savings as ammunition, a double-pronged approach could work. Talk to the communities in Tacoma and Lakewood to gather support for grade separation through education about the danger of a diagonal crossing, and perhaps secure some funding through the City of Tacoma to that end. Ask for help from the Legislature and the Transportation Committee to prioritize this project above others or to secure additional funding given the cost savings of doing both projects at once.